If you have never eaten a freshly made tortilla, you do not know what you have been missing. Home-made tortillas are to the ones you buy in the supermarket like a slice of home-baked bread compared with the white-bread dough balls you also buy in the supermarket.
Fortunately, modernity has had an impact on tortilla making. If you had been a Native American making tortillas years ago, you would have had to make hominy or posole by mixing dried corn with wood ash, washing off the husks, and then grinding the still-damp corn kernels. Then you would mix that with a little salt (maybe) and knead it with a little water to the right consistency to form masa – literally “dough” to make tortillas, arepas, papusas, etc. These days, all you have to do is buy a sack of masa harina de maiz para tortillas y tamales (The package may have all or only some of these words – don’t worry, buy it.) The two most common brands in the USA are Quaker and Maseca. Masa harina or masa flour is actually dried masa which only needs water to form the dough.
Even though making the dough is easy, you may need some special equipment to make perfect tortillas. Of course experienced Mexican and Native American cooks just pat out perfectly round tortillas between their two hands. That expertise comes only from years of practice, so consider using some simple and inexpensive assistive devices.
First is the tortilla press. Several models are available in cooking shops or from the internet. The one I use was made in Mexico of cast iron. Some versions are made from wood; some have non-stick surfaces. They will probably cost around $20. If you don’t want to invest in one, you can use a small length of 2 inch PVC pipe as a sort of rolling-pin. With practice, that works OK, but it’s still not as good or easy as a press.
Second is the plastic protector. If you try to make tortillas on a bare press surface, they will probably stick – even with the “non-stick” variety – so you need plastic from which you can peel off the tortilla. I use a plastic sandwich bag. With a sharp knife, open the sides of the bag. Do not slit open the bottom fold of the bag. That way you will have a long, narrow plastic sheet with a fold in the middle. This will cost only about 2 cents or so.
Third is the comal. This is a round cast-iron pan with low sides. Mine is from Mexico. You can buy a similar one from a kitchen store or from the internet for around $20. You can also use a cast-iron skillet. The important thing is that the pan holds heat, so a light weight pan won’t work as well, and a non-stick pan really isn’t needed.
- 2 cups masa harina
- 1 1/3 cups warm water
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Stir until completely combined into a soft dough. If the flour does not all come together, add a few drops of additional water.
- Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes. This will allow the water to be completely absorbed make a smoother masa. If the masa is still crumbly, you can add a few more drops of water. Just be judicious in your additions, because you don’t want the masa to be too soft.
- When you are ready to make the tortillas, remove the plastic wrap, knead the masa gently a few times, and then divide the dough into 12 equal-sized pieces. For more precision, you can weigh them (Each individual ball should weigh 1/12th of the weight of the total ball), but that may seem too compulsive.
- One at a time, remove the pieces of dough, recovering the others with plastic film. Roll the dough into a ball
- Prepare the tortilla press by covering the opened press with the prepared plastic sandwich bag. Then place the ball of dough in the center of the bottom plate of the press. Cover with the flap of the sandwich bag, cover with the free plate of the press, and press down smoothly with the lever of the press.
- Remove the plastic with the pressed tortilla from the press. Turn the tortilla into your hand, and then transfer gently to the middle of the comal which has been pre-heated over a medium-high flame.
- Bake for about 30 seconds or until the underside is a light toasty color with dark brown flecks. Turn over and bake for another 30 seconds or so. The tortilla may puff up during the baking. That’s good. You can use a pancake turner to flatten the tortilla against the surface of the comal to make sure that the whole surface of the tortilla is baked.
- Adjust the heat under the comal if the tortillas burn or do not bake quickly enough.
- Press one tortilla while the previous one is baking. Continue the process until all of the dough balls have been used.
- Keep the baked tortillas warm in a folded tea towel or in a special tortilla warmer. Serve immediately.
Once you get them baked, just slather them with butter and eat while warm. They are delicious that way, but they also make great huevos rancheros.